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| 24 April, 2018

Architects in Gulf's skyscraper capital begin to think small

Feasibility begins to take centre stage in building design as affordability becomes key

Image used for illustrative purpose.
Emirates Towers in DIFC, Dubai.

Image used for illustrative purpose. Emirates Towers in DIFC, Dubai.

Core Savills/Handout via Thomson Reuters Zawya

Architecture firms in Dubai are used to thinking big, but the head of one local practice has said it is seeing requests for reductions of up to 30 percent in unit sizes in a bid to increase the viability of buildings.

"Definitely the unit sizes are becoming smaller; sometimes by up to 30 percent," Fareid Esmaeil, a founding partner at X-Architects, told Thomson Reuters Projects.

The head of the 16-year old Dubai-based firm, which won the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Business Innovation Award in 2017, said the biggest current challenge for architects is designing "a high-efficiency floor plan".

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"There is a new kind of demand in the current market and developers are catering to the new needs," said Esmaeil.

X-Architects' portfolio includes projects such as the Revelation Mosque and Al Dana Mosque in Abu Dhabi, the Welcome Pavilion in Dubai, the Sheikh Mohamed Bin Khalifa House (SMBKH) in Al Ain, the Wasit Wetland Centre in Sharjah and concept design for the new Dubai Creek masterplan.

"In the residential sector, for example, there is a demand for smaller units because they are much more affordable and you can see that a lot of end-users are starting to buy their own properties. So from the design perspective, projects need to be much more economical," he said.

He argued that the residential market is becoming increasingly price-sensitive.

"Requirements have changed when it comes to the feasibility aspects," said Esmaeil. "The developer now expects that it should make more sense when it comes to the economical aspects of the project."

Cutting the amount of space within units is also seen by developers as a preferred method for bringing down costs than by compromising on quality.

"The developers are still demanding good design. They are not just trying to maintain good design but even improve on what they offer [in their projects] compared to what has been done in the past," he said.

Community focus

There is also a change in the types of projects being developed, according to Esmaeil.

"We have seen good growth in the residential and healthcare sector. But at the same time, I see an increase in demand for other types of projects - such as civic projects and cultural projects. It is not necessary that it is one huge project [in one location] but a series of mid- to small-sized projects across the market."

Developers, he noted, have understood the importance of creating a sense of place within projects, as opposed to concentrating on individual buildings.

"The developers are looking at creating a community space, a cultural project or civic spaces for people within their projects because they are realising that such elements become the core area for people to gather and interact."

He added: "There has been lots of demand in terms of building community malls, which have progressive offerings along with the basic needs for the residents."

And helping drive this shift is Expo 2020 and the increase in cultural events across the UAE.

"You have Dubai Design Week, SIKKA and then a number of other events. So this trend [for community projects] is happening very naturally with one development popping up here and the next one somewhere else. To further explain - around five years ago, all the cultural projects were done by one main developer. Now, everyone is doing such projects, which is a very good change," he said.

Currently, X-Architects has a diverse portfolio of projects on its books, including cultural and religious buildings, community centres, restoration works, and environmental and visitor centres across the region.

"The projects start from 5 billion UAE dirhams and go downward (in value) to even 200 million dirhams but we cannot speak about many of them as they are in the confidential stage," he said. "But they are mainly based in the UAE and Saudi Arabia."

The UAE, he said, remains a consistent and progressive market.

"We are getting work in the real estate sector, the commercial space and cultural projects and that is ongoing. We are also putting a lot of focus in two other upcoming markets that we see a lot of promise in the future - Saudi Arabia and India," said Esmaeil.

In 2013, X-Architects won a design competition to design a master plan for Mecca. The competition was launched with a view to boosting capacity in the city to cope with increased pilgrim numbers and its winning design - produced alongside engineering firm Buro Happold, was revealed in 2015.

"We finished the master planning but we have not seen any further developments," he added.

In India, the firm is mainly focusing on cultural projects.

"We are targeting very specific types of projects and mainly focusing on cultural projects - specifically, in the cultural master planning segment. We have not yet secured a project but are in several discussions," he said.

Maintaining scale

While unwilling to give any y-o-y figures in terms of growth for the practice, Esmaeil said that scale has been maintained at the firm.

"From 2016 onwards, we said we wanted to maintain the scale of the office and we don't want to go beyond that figure. We are a team of 50 people and we want to be sustainable. The aim is to maintain the team," he said.

He added that he anticipates that market conditions in 2018 will continue to be tough.

"It is a very competitive market and we have to find ways to stay afloat," said Esmaeil.

(Reporting by Sona Nambiar; Editing by Anoop Menon and Michael Fahy)

(anoop.menon@thomsonreuters.com)

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